Sharing the Road

At WSP’s Research & Innovation centre in Petone, a world-first instrumented bicycle is helping provide a better understanding of the factors affecting cyclists’ experiences on New Zealand’s roads.

A team of behavioural scientists, sustainable transport experts and instrumentation engineers have undertaken innovative research for Waka Kotahi – the NZ Transport Agency, providing them with a solid scientific basis to inform their goal of improving levels of cycling throughout the country.

Jared Thomas is a leading expert in the research and design of spaces for vulnerable road users. He says that although it’s currently the most repressed mode of transport, there is potential for cycling to become the largest demand growth area.

Figures support this. The Ministry of Transport Household Travel Survey shows that although 31% of New Zealanders aged over 15 have cycled in the past year, less than 2% of trips are made by bike. A key target group for improving uptake is the ‘interested but concerned’ 20-30% of people who would like to cycle more, but are discouraged by safety concerns.

Jared’s research confirms that their concerns are justified in many cases, with most riders experiencing an uncomfortable interaction with a motor vehicle on their ride – typically one every 22 minutes.

“These incidents are from a vehicle overtaking too closely, but can also be from other cyclists overtaking closely. Another common example is a vehicle cutting them off at intersections or roundabouts, such as turning left in front of them or suddenly pulling out.”

Thoughtful, connected infrastructure design has a large part to play, particularly for less experienced cyclists, explains Jared; one bad element of the route will stop a rider from completing the whole journey.

Tension between cyclists and motorists is also an issue, but Jared acknowledges that while much is made of the animosity between drivers and cyclists, WSP’s ‘passing gap’ research demonstrates that most drivers do give cyclists an appropriate amount of space.

“If anything, a surprising number of problematic events actually occur between other cyclists or pedestrians.”

In trying to increase cyclist numbers, Jared emphasises that it is important to understand the priorities of, and impediments to, different groups.

“We know that commuters want fast and safe routes, with strong links to other transport modes. Recreational cyclists are more accepting of slower routes, but want an ‘experience’, valuing features like public art and waterside routes. For children, it’s important to consider separation from traffic, and the availability of ‘learn to ride’ facilities.”

The latest study undertaken for the NZ Transport Agency looked at factors affecting this ‘level of service’.

Volunteer cyclists in cities across the country followed pre-determined routes on the instrumented bike, giving opinions on cycling provision including shared pathways, separated lanes and painted lanes. Footage was then shown to a larger experimental group of cyclists of differing levels of ability. Feedback was shared, including whether the group would use the routes. WSP’s behavioural scientists analysed the data, to highlight how different factors affect perceptions of safety, and which changes are most likely to reduce perceived risks.

The data was also used to map incident clusters, providing a clear visual representation of problem areas. Combined with video footage which has a more persuasive impact that numbers alone, this enables decision-makers to see how cyclists experience their environment, helping prioritise areas where network improvements will give the best results.

Historically, safety data on cycling has been restricted to statistics on fatalities; near miss incidents are not recorded. Jared advocates a preventative approach, using cameras for machine learning and analysis of near misses to help form a clearer picture of where interventions can help. He combines this data with a human-centric design approach to devise solutions for high-risk behaviour areas.

It works. His next generation driveway design led to an impressive 75% reduction in near miss events for cyclists and will be introduced nationally by the NZ Transport Agency.

Jared also works with transport teams to help road design adapt to future trends. For example, the emergence of e-bikes has enabled longer and steeper trips, makes commuting more feasible; riders don’t arrive at work needing a shower and cycle accessibility for older and disabled people is improved. When combined with new safer, separated routes, this could lead to an increase in cyclist numbers, which should be considered when planning road developments.

Peter Kortegast, Senior Transportation Engineer, suggests that meeting the needs of those who are concerned about safety through well-designed cycling infrastructure increases trips.

His analysis of a separated cycleway in Nelson, New Zealand’s first bi-directional cycle facility, showed a 94% increase in cycle user numbers.

“The majority of cyclists felt it was a safety improvement. What was really interesting was that the users who were most supportive were those on mobility scooters who enjoyed the even surface.”

Providing these facilities is well worth the effort he says.

“Cyclists are active, healthy, save health taxes, have lower emotional stress, free up vehicle parks for shoppers, help support cycle shops and free up space on congested roads. They’re a positive to have in our communities.”

A truly smart bike

Based on an early 2003 model which was used to test road surfaces, the instrumented bike has been developed to shed light on more complex issues, with the current iteration collecting a unique combination of objective and subjective data. The bike uses LiDAR to measure the speed and size of passing vehicles, as well as the distance from the cyclist, while also recording geospatial information and video footage of the journey. This is combined with the cyclists’ input via a button which can be pressed to report incidents which make them feel uncomfortable.


Jared Thomas, Technical Principal for Behavioural Science, is passionate about bringing human-centred design approaches and data together to make better spaces for us to work, live and play. His work focuses on improving the safety and usability of road corridors, footpaths, cycleways, public transport, buildings, and public spaces, such as outdoor urban parks.

Peter Kortegast, Senior Transportation Engineer and Project Manager, has specialist experience in transportation planning, economic business case development, road safety, cycling and walking facilities and Safety in Design. He is considered a national leader in this field and has been involved in developing strategic national policy.